Cinnabar is often used to describe a Chinese style of carved, vermilion-colored lacquer. However, cinnabar is actually the name of a red mineral, a form of mercury(II) sulfide, used to dye the lacquer. While most cinnabar objects are a deep scarlet hue, other lacquer colors can be achieved with different minerals, such as carbon for black and orpiment for yellow.

Though Chinese lacquerware had been produced since the 3rd century BC, carved lacquer was first introduced around the 14th century during the Ming dynasty. Lacquer was traditionally made using the resin or sap of the Toxicodendron vernicifluum family of trees found in southern China. Many successive layers of lacquer would be applied to a base structure, which was often made from wood, until the surface could be carved into complex geometric or figural forms.

Red quickly became the preferred color for lacquerware carvings, in part because the color has long been associated with good fortune in China. For the most elaborate cinnabar pieces, various colors of lacquer would be applied below its red surface layers, adding depth to a finished carving. While the original mercury-based pigment was toxic to humans, more modern cinnabar jewelry uses a resin-based polymer instead.


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